School of Health Professions

KUMC Rehabilitation Science student finds new career path a slam dunk


Mar 26, 2012

By Andi Enns

For Jessica Witherspoon, it was an unfortunate turn of events that introduced her to her future profession. Though she’s a doctoral candidate in Rehabilitation Science at the University of Kansas Medical Center, there was a time when she thought her future was playing professional basketball.

Basketball had always been Witherspoon’s passion, but when she suffered a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee during her senior year of high school, she lost all chances of getting an athletic scholarship and realizing her long-held dream. She wouldn’t pick up a basketball again for four years.

“I went to college on a merit scholarship instead,” Witherspoon says. “But my knee just wasn’t getting better… That’s why I became interested in preventative care for athletes.”

During her undergraduate years at Delaware State University, Witherspoon did research on medical treatments to prevent career-ending injuries. She said she knew then that she wanted to go into the medical field.

“I needed to know the dynamics of the human body,” Witherspoon says. “It’s not just biomechanics – it’s physiology. I wanted to bridge the gap in preventative care.”

Witherspoon says she still wasn’t sure exactly what career path to take. She did a post-bachelor certificate in industrial physical therapy at Vanderbilt University and earned a master’s in exercise physiology from University of North Carolina – Greensboro. During her graduate studies, she worked part time in physical therapy and coached undergraduate basketball.

“I had such mixed emotions,” Witherspoon says. “I had been missing my greatest love, but I could still handle the ball. I could still jump up to the rim.”

Reconnecting to the game she loved inspired Witherspoon to start training at an elite level once again. When she got her acceptance letter from the KU department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, her on-court skills had progressed to the point where she had to decide between joining a professional women’s basketball team in Europe or continue going to school.

When Witherspoon arrived at the medical center, she says she was focused on knee injuries, like the one that kept her away from her goals. She discovered that a great deal of research had already been done on the knee and huge improvements had been made in the understanding and treatment of knee-related injuries.

“I met with a lot of doctors here to find out what the need was,” Witherspoon says. “One of thing topics I heard a lot was the shoulder. I did some background research and found shoulder instability led to a high reoccurrence of injuries.”

She says she found people with shoulder injuries would come into the clinic over and over, with the same complaints -- strengthening the muscles wasn’t working. Witherspoon says she was also interested in the other processes that contributed to instability.

“A nice percentage of people with this issue don’t return to work,” Witherspoon says. “Especially overhead and assembly jobs.”

Witherspoon says the situation is particularly bad for patients with bilateral injuries or injuries in both shoulders.

“I remember reading a court case about a man whose bilateral injury was being compensated as just one injury,” Witherspoon says. “He couldn’t work, and he couldn’t get on disability. He couldn’t provide for his family.”

Witherspoon says she likes examining similar cases and asking herself the kinds of questions that will lead her to find unique solutions.

“For example, what could we have done to reduce the disability in a case like his?” Witherspoon says. “Could we have restored full functioning? Was he given treatment for instability as well as strengthening?”

It was questions like these that led Witherspoon to win an award from the governor of Kansas at the ninth annual Capital Graduate Research Summit. Held on Feb. 16 in Topeka, Kan., Witherspoon’s poster addressed issues like the one from the court case, and also treatment solutions. Her poster won an award from the governor of Kansas.

After completing her doctor in physical therapy (DPT) degree at the medical center, Witherspoon is researching shoulder instability for her Ph.D. She says she would like to pursue a post-doctorate certificate in regenerative medicine with emphasis in the joints, and work in a sports training facility doing both research and clinical care. Currently, is a researcher in two laboratories: she studies biomechanics in Dr. Terrence McIff's orthopedic research lab and bio-chemicals in Dr. Irina Smirnova's diabetes research lab.

“All of my passion and drive is for athletes,” Witherspoon says. “My heart is in basketball, but I wouldn’t limit myself to athletes from one sport.”

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The mission of the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Kansas Medical Center is to further the profession of physical therapy through state-of-the-art education, research, and service at the local, state, national and international level. The department is committed to translational research that has an impact on physical therapy practitioners and on their clients. Located in the University of Kansas's School of Health Professions, the department cultivates highly competent physical therapists, proficient faculty to meet professional workforce demands, and researchers in the field of rehabilitation to advance the science of health care.


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